By Bob Lupton Wise men, from the east. That’s how Matthew described them. Magi, leaders of sufficient import to gain a personal audience with Herod the Great. Three of them plus their considerable entourage. Tradition has ascribed to them names – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar – imaginative attempts to create the illusion that we somehow know who these shadowy figures were. But we do not. Likely they came from Persian aristocracy where Zoroastrianism and the highly regarded science of astrology were woven into a polytheistic culture. Highly educated men, doubtless, given their obvious knowledge of religion, literature, science and political protocol. But why they appeared in Judea, a remote outpost on the edge of the civilized world, and just as quickly disappeared, remains a mystery.
They claimed to be following a star. Or perhaps a unique configuration of stars. They had deciphered from undisclosed sources that a world leader, a Jew of great importance, would be born at the precise time and location where certain stars aligned. If this calculation were true, they could have the distinction of being among the first to pay homage. So convinced were they of their conclusions that they set out on a journey of many months, planning their itinerary to coincide with celestial movements. Vigilant nighttime observations had led them into Herod’s jurisdiction. The Judean king seemed surprised by their mission, and obviously very interested. He encouraged the travelers to continue their quest and report back to him if and when they located this infant-king.
The wise men did indeed find the king they sought. Their assumptions proved to be correct. And they presented to him gifts befitting royalty – gold, frankincense and myrrh. But they did not return to Herod’s palace to report as instructed. Rather, they slipped quietly out of the country (and out of recorded history) by an unknown route.
How did three prominent members of pagan Persian society end up in the Christmas story? Where did they gain the insight to search for a great Jewish king? Could they have unearthed ancient Hebrew prophesies from centuries-old archives of Cyrus’ dynasty? Or perhaps their study of religions familiarized them with the persistent Jewish expectation of a great deliverer, a Messiah. But how did they come to the belief that the stars would reveal the timing and location of the birth of this king?
Magi (from which our word magic derives) were members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrians who had an international reputation as astrologists. Combining spirituality and scientific observation, these “wise men” devised elaborate systems for predicting from celestial movements events in the human world. How strange that in the practice of their pagan art they should divine the Messianic arrival – when the studious priesthood of Israel did not. Fascinating, too, that God would use foreign wealth to bankroll the heavenly child during his early years in exile.
The Magi were three of the small cast of unorthodox characters who would appear in this divine drama. At the opposite end of the social spectrum were a handful of illiterate shepherds who received a special personal invitation to the little king’s entry. But no other public fanfare. Oh yes, there were the two insignificant seniors at the temple – ancient Anna and retired priest Simeon – who received a private revelation when the child was presented for circumcision. But no others, besides his parents.
In retrospect it is not difficult to see that this Kingdom the Christ-child came to introduce was unlike any other human institution. It crept quietly into history, by-passing the Temple establishment, avoiding public display. It engaged unsuspected and unsuspecting players to accomplish its purposes. It was explained by interesting (if not obscure) stories rather than by compelling theological treatises. A child could understand, Christ said, but the prominent and learned would stumble over its simplicity. It would upset convention by challenging religious traditions and by inviting into its membership social outcasts, repulsive ethnics, and enemy occupiers and collaborators. For thirty-three brief years the world would catch direct glimpses of this Kingdom through the liberating, troubling words and example of its heaven-sent King. The prominent and learned, whose systems He upset, would in the end make of Him a public example of what happens to anyone who threatens their hallowed domain.
But this Kingdom did not end with the inglorious death of its King. Its quiet presence still slips into human history, engaging the unsuspected and unsuspecting to accomplish its purposes. It continues to elude the restraints of orthodoxy. It still invites into its fellowship social outcasts, estranged ethnics and political enemies. Children still recognize the wonder of it. And those with child-like faith. And for those who dream of peace, who search for signs of a Kingdom that has come (and is yet to come), for them Christmas is an absolutely magical time.